Women in Wine: Sumi Sarma

“It was a Bordeaux, but I can’t remember the name,” consultant, communications specialist and Master of Wine candidate Sumita Sarma, ACA, DipWSET responds. “That’s the whole point. I couldn’t pronounce it, or spell it; the labels all looked the same.”

Religion and gender put wine doubly off limits for Sumi, whose extended family still quizzes her when she returns to India for a visit. “They say, why did you leave a well-paid job? What is respectable about drinking every day?

To her conservative relatives, setting aside an MBA and multi-national finance career to work in wine was unimaginable. To her consternation, Sumi discovered this decision was almost as inexplicable to the industry. “It was this old boy’s network. I couldn’t fit in. I didn’t have the background. I didn’t look like them. I was a woman. My humility came across as lack of confidence.”

Sumita Sarma, ACA, DipWSET, MW candidate

Sumi’s journey into wine began in the supermarket. She had moved from India to England to work for a management consulting firm. Grocery shopping brought the revelation that right there, “beside the tomatoes and onions,” were shelves of wine. Curious, Sumi would pick bottles of this “untouchable” product to try.

Curiosity is a theme. While working in Hong Kong in the early Noughties she was “curious” about the Bordeaux wines that were the rage and, finding the labels impenetrable, took the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) Level 1 course. Then Level 2: “French wines are complex. They confused the hell out of me. The determination to fix the confusion in my brain drove me to learn.”

By the time Sumi and her family returned to Britain in 2012 she was studying for the WSET Diploma, its highest qualification. Keen to add practical knowledge to theory, she started applying for wine industry jobs, “just part-time, a few hours a day, to get some experience.”

That molehill goal morphed into a mountain. The CVs flowed out, the interview requests barely trickled in. Months bloated to years. “I lost confidence in those two years,” Sumi says. “I went to interviews and felt so low I could barely speak. If you go in thinking you’ll be rejected, you are rejected, it becomes a vicious circle.”

On paper, Sumi is a dream candidate: articulate, driven, multilingual, creative, dogged and blade-smart (“it’s not like getting an A-star in maths,” she says of the WSET Level 3, which has a pass rate of about 50%). But in the wine industry’s “practical working life” she was an outsider. “I don’t see any Asian faces. I can count the number Black people, literally, on my fingers. People’s profile is similar.” She pauses, savors the irony: “They all look the same to me.”

Asked how she coped with constant rejection, Sumi points out that in finance: “people are out to kill you.” She credits her banking-honed resilience with helping navigate the “gruesome” aspects of the wine industry. “I have a tremendous amount of willpower, I don’t give up easily. I decided if nobody will offer me a job, I’ll offer myself a job.”

Sumi ticks off a few of the services her company Sumilier offers: “wine communication, live streamed tastings, speaking online, working as a communications consultant, especially for European wineries trying to access the UK market; I lead them through strategy-building, marketing, export strategies, guiding wineries through Brexit.”

Her mission is to “bring to the wine trade a level of responsibility for diversity in making, selling and distribution. It needs to develop a model to assimilate race, religion, gender and neuro-diversity.”

There are things that seem small, like broadening the wine lexicon. “I have trouble associating smells to some fruits. I still don’t what a mulberry is,” Sumi says. “But do you know dragon fruit?” (I don’t.)

Then there are big, obvious problems. “I wish someone had asked me [when I started out], do you have allies? I would have said: No. Nobody knows me, nobody wants to know me. Allies are so important to getting people into the industry. Self-worth, well-being, it all comes down to inclusion. If you exclude people, the industry loses talent.”

Diversity isn’t a matter of quote-unquote political correctness. The wine industry needs to evolve to survive. “The rest of the spirits industry is mega-evolving to deal with consumers, with Covid, while wine is trying to go back to the same distribution model, selling to the same people. You have to keep it real, keep it fresh. If you target the same network you will become extinct. It’s time the industry shows some initiative,” Sumi decrees. “They have to resolve this.”

Meanwhile, she sails on: “Signing up for Master of Wine felt like a way to rise above. I’ve gone a level up, on my own, because I want to bring change.” Sumi is in stage two of the rigorous Masters of Wine program. On completion, she will become the second-ever Indian MW.

Sumi at Chateau de la Grille, Loire Valley

“Since I started the MW I have found role models, mentors, wine-makers and viticulturists who pick up the phone,” she says. “One good thing that’s come from Covid is that people are reaching out more. They understand you can’t work on your own.”

After bruising years of creating a space for herself, Sumi is delighted and energized: “Wine people are well-rounded. Some of them are chefs, or play in rock bands. Growing grapes, making wine is treacherous. People learn to be kind to each other to work through challenging vintages, challenging regions, challenging climates. I have built good relationships.”

Sumi is determined to help other “outsiders” in. “My whole endevor is to bring in minorities and help them understand this is a job they will love. This is why I’m working hard for diversity in the industry.”

To an aspirant, Sumi’s message is: “Experiment. Learn. Fail. See if there is still something in your curiosity. If you’re not curious, you won’t get anywhere. Be inquisitive. Ask questions. Dig deeper. If you have the curiosity, you can develop the skill set.”

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